Alison Flynn, MCIC is an associate professor in the department of chemistry and biomolecular sciences at the University of Ottawa. She leads the Flynn Research Group, focused on learning at the postsecondary level, in chemistry and across disciplines. Flynn is the 2021 winner of CIC’s Award for Chemistry Education.

CIC News recently asked Flynn to talk about “flipped classrooms” and her penchant for Nelson Mandela quotes.

You’ve said your teaching philosophy can be summed up in a quote from Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Later this month, we mark World Earth Day. Can you unpack that quote in light of the environmental challenges we face?

To address the complex global challenges that we face, we all need to be able to interpret and reason with information. In our chemistry courses, we have a unique opportunity to teach students how to reason with evidence, skills they will ideally use in chemistry settings, their careers, and their everyday lives. Students also have to be able to connect their chemistry knowledge with other contexts, or systems thinking. To truly address these challenges, we need more people with such skills and I am thrilled to see the recent surge and efforts to improve equity, diversity, and inclusion in education. We have a long way to go toward making our educational systems as equitable, diverse, and inclusive as they should be, but I think we’re on the path to change.

Some those approaches include (1) greater use of open education resources to increase access, such as the many contributions that educators across the country made on during the pandemic for online laboratories and courses, (2) creating more equitable and inclusive courses and programs, (3) and redesigning curricula to better equip students in their careers and everyday lives.

Your research into chemistry education is about understanding how students learn, and using that to improve curricula and courses. What is the biggest mistake we make in our current approach to chemistry education? 

Educating through intuition only. Our intuition is an important part of our work as scientists and educators, but in both domains, we can only maximize outcomes and minimize critical errors if we leverage evidence—new or existing. As scientists, we are used to analysing data to inform our research decisions. With the years we all spend in formal and informal education settings, we can also better gather and use data to inform educational decisions.

For example, we can use that data to understand who is taking our courses (diversity), identify the barriers and opportunities that exist for different students to address issues of equity and inclusion, measure the effectiveness of teaching and learning approaches (e.g., Is a new approach worth the time, effort, and money? Who benefits? Who is worse off?), explore students’ experiences in courses and programs, study student learning in the laboratory, etc.

You’ve studied the importance of teaching the patterns and principles of reactivity, rather than surface-level memorization. What has your research revealed?

At uOttawa, we collectively decided to implement an organic chemistry curriculum organized by patterns and principles of reactivity, instead of the traditional functional group organization (Flynn and Ogilvie, 2015), an approach that is now available in a textbook (Ogilvie et al., 2017). There is also explicit instruction and assessment on chemistry’s “language” (e.g., curved arrow formalism). Part of those new ideas were inspired by colleagues who had piloted and advocated for them: Keith Fagnou and Tony Durst. In particular, Dr. Fagnou had emphasized the importance of teaching through chemical principles, including concepts of nucleophilicity and electrophilicity; Dr. Durst advocated for teaching in a gradient of mechanistic difficulty to foster understanding over memorization. In a time when information is readily available, the patterns and principles approach aims to equip students with the tools to figure out new situations.

My research group has found that students in the new context are better able to propose reaction mechanisms both for familiar and unfamiliar questions (Webber and Flynn, 2018) and have high proficiency in chemistry’s language in most situations (Flynn and Featherstone, 2017). We have seen that students initially organize their thinking by surface level features (e.g., solvent) but shift over time to a more process-oriented approach (Galloway, Leung, and Flynn, 2018, 2019), and reason with different levels of sophistication depending on the context (Bodé, Deng, and Flynn, 2019; Deng and Flynn, 2021). We’re still not sure about the different effects of the curriculum as it is adapted in different contexts by different educators.

Your students praise your “flipped classroom” model. How does that work and why is it effective?

The main idea is to move the passive parts of a course online (information transmission) and maximize the time that the class is together with activities aligned with the learning outcomes, designed to build knowledge and skill. Much like a sports team or band practice, we read/watch the playbook or score ahead of time, then use practice time to work through drills, set up challenging situations, and give feedback to improve. There is now a large body of research showing the positive impacts of active learning environments for students’ learning.

Not all students like this model, preferring to simply be told what they need to know. Unfortunately, passively receiving information is not the same as being able to use it—just imagine a ski jumper, pilot, or professional violinist explaining their skill to you for the first time, then sending you out to the competition or performance. A recent study found that students’ “feelings of learning” can be much higher than their actual learning (Deslauriers et al., 2019).

Despite spending years in formal education, few students are explicitly taught how learning works or how to learn effectively. So in addition to having educators shift to more evidence-informed models for teaching, the education system could better support and empower learners to learn more effectively. We developed a Growth & Goals module for courses as one way of addressing that gap.

What is the single most important tool for you as a teacher?

Listening! I need to hear and see what the students in my courses understand and how the course structure is working (or not) for students. I also learn constantly from colleagues across disciplines, whose approaches and perspectives continually have me thinking about my own, and our educational system at large. Checking in with students has been particularly important during the pandemic. The online course structure is new to most as well as living through a pandemic and all the effects that has had: isolation, stress, poor health, working from different time zones or distracting conditions. We’ve also lived through significant racist incidents, some more global, others more local. Even though these major events didn’t directly occur in our chemistry courses, they certainly affected the people in those courses, and their learning as a result. By listening to students, I’ve learned to make my own courses more inclusive and am excited for the next phase of education.